Anyone who digs deeper already knows that comics are fully capable of being as elastic, ambiguous, and fluid as any other art medium. Just like fiction, film, and painting, the comics medium can reveal as much as it hides. There’s an annual anthology, “The Best American Comics,” that showcases a wide range of North American comics and addresses the familiar and peculiar in what amounts to a particular branch of contemporary comics. Or, perhaps the best way to put it is to say this book showcases the best in comics as an art form. The 2014 edition is now available. Let’s take a look.
In my interview with series editor Bill Kartalopoulos, we talked about the state of comics and what lies ahead. What BAC does quite well is to give you a sense of where we’re currently at. This year’s guest editor, Scott McCloud, is a beloved and respected comics authority. One thing he champions is looking to the future and pushing current boundaries. So, for instance, you’ll find here a healthy amount of work that originated on the web. Notably, you’ll find an excerpt from “Depression Part Two,” by Allie Brosh. And, among other comics originating on the web, there’s an excerpt from “Hip Hop Family,” by Ed Piskor, that was serialized on Boing Boing. And that’s just scratching the surface since this book has got a lot to say and a lot to cover!
Scott McCloud is a bold and audacious explorer of comics. Anyone who has read his landmark, “Understanding Comics,” can attest to that. For this book, McCloud again tackles the subject of comics in a heroic fashion. He has organized things in a wonderfully idiosyncratic way with some categories that seem to shout at you like, “Great Comics Are Not a Genre” and “Oh, Crap–Webcomics!” He has two different categories just for “strange comics.” Under “Strange Adventures,” he has, for example, Ted May’s “Dimensions,” with its signature deadpan humor. One guy reveals a little of what’s inside his soul during an office meeting and gets a lukewarm response. Only much later, we come to see that his co-worker was really listening. You will love that final panel of a pair of sensitive nostrils hovering over a suburban landscape.
The notion of comics as an art form is quite well established even if pockets of resistance still exist. What a book like this demonstrates is the great diversity of material comics has to offer from the most fantastical to the most personal. There are many detours in an artist’s life. Sometimes cartoonists betray each other. Sometimes cartoonists support each other to the point of distraction. And sometimes the unthinkable will happen and upturn everything. Here we find Tom Hart’s chronicle of the loss of his daughter in “RL.”
It is safe to say that, on some level, every cartoonist in this book just needs to create the work. Forget the fame and fortune that never quite comes. Just do the work. Call it “alternative,” “underground,” “indie,” “comix,” or “art.” The work needs to be done.
Where do you find comics that reach the mark of art? That’s where it really gets intriguing since there are no set rules. You might think that the big comic book publishers are off limits for whatever reasons. And, yes, it’s quite true you will not find any superhero comics in this collection. In fact, you won’t necessarily find anything here that is a part of relatively mainstream commercial comics. You know, “commercial,” as in “commerce,” as in “profitable.” However, you never know. Sometimes the most artful comics are also commerce-friendly. You will find here a nice selection of those sort of comics. One notable example found here is an excerpt from “Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
Perhaps part of the thinking goes that the biggest brands in comics, say Spider-Man for example, are already so beyond well-known it staggers the mind. And, in many respects, Spidey is an example of a product and not a subject for vigorous artistic experimentation. Of course, that’s not always or exactly true but let’s leave it there and say that the web-slinger’s adventures are not generally the result of work by a relatively obscure independent cartoonist.
Yeah, the majority of the work here is my one cartoonist. While the norm for big comic book publishers is to have a team create a comic with a writer, artist, colorist, letterer, and editor, in the world of comics that we explore in this collection, the norm is to have a lone cartoonist toiling away at the whole process. This is a most unusual way of creating comics compared to mainstream comics but it’s quite the norm for indie comics. And there really couldn’t be any other way around this. There will be the exceptions like Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb working together. But who, but R. Crumb alone, could have dug himself into such a macabre and fascinating world as Crumb comics? It’s that inner world, explored by that lonely, persistent, and slightly demented cartoonist that gives us the goods.
Clearly, there is much to savor and discover within these pages. Stay a while and read and reread. You’ll get hip to what’s going on. I’ll direct you to one last example and that’s from Sam Alden’s “Hawaii 1997.” In that comic are some words uttered at the end that have taken on a poignant significance for followers of indie comics, akin to Orson Welles uttering “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane.” At the end of a most exhilirating encounter with a strange girl on a deserted patch of beach, a boy must endure her taunting farewell comment: “You will spend the rest of your life trying to find me.” Words to live by for many a cartoonist.